JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli security forces were involved in a mass manhunt Friday for two Palestinians suspected of carrying out a knife attack near Tel Aviv that left three Israelis dead.
The stabbing on Thursday, Israel’s Independence Day, was the latest in a series of deadly attacks deep inside the country in recent weeks. It came as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians were already heightened by violence at a major holy site in Jerusalem, holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Police said they were looking for two suspects, aged 19 and 20, from the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, which has re-emerged as a militant stronghold in the latest wave of violence, the worst Israel has seen in years. Several attackers have come from or around Jenin, and Israeli forces have launched arrest raids that have sparked shootings there.
“We will lay our hands on the terrorists and their supportive environment, and they will pay the price,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said after meeting top security officials Thursday night. Authorities said the attackers fled in a vehicle.
Doctors described a horrific scene in Elad, an ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. In addition to the three dead, four others were injured, one of them seriously. Police said at least one of the assailants was wielding an ax in the attack.
Israeli media identified those killed as Yonatan Havakuk, Boaz Gol and Oren Ben Yiftah, three fathers in their 30s and 40s who are survived by 16 children.
Ben Yiftah, 35, a father of six, was from the central city of Lod. The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, said “our heart is breaking into little pieces” in a Facebook post, calling it a “huge tragedy.”
Israel marked its Independence Day on Thursday, a festive national holiday where people often barbecue and attend air shows.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz extended the closure of the West Bank, imposed before the holiday to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel, to remain in effect until Sunday.
In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the “horrible attack on innocent men and women.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke with his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who “strongly condemned” the attack in Elad, according to a statement from Lapid’s office.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government administers autonomous zones in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security matters, also condemned the attack.
“The killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only leads to further deterioration at a time when all of us are trying to achieve stability and prevent escalation,” he said, quoted by the official Wafa news agency.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised the attack and linked it to violence at the Jerusalem holy site.
“The assault on the Al-Aqsa mosque cannot go unpunished,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said. “The heroic operation in Tel Aviv is a practical translation of what the resistance had warned about.”
The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam and is built on top of a hill that is the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount. It is at the emotional heart of the conflict, and Palestinians and Israeli police have clashed there repeatedly in recent weeks.
Under informal arrangements known as the status quo, Jews can visit the site but not pray there. In recent years, they have come in increasing numbers with police escorts and many have prayed quietly, angering Palestinians and neighboring Jordan, who is the site’s custodian. Palestinians have long feared that Israel plans to eventually take over the site or partition it.
Israel says it is committed to maintaining the status quo and accuses Hamas of inciting the recent violence.
At least 18 Israelis have been killed in five attacks since March, including another stabbing in southern Israel, two shootings in the Tel Aviv area and a shooting last weekend in a West Bank settlement.
Nearly 30 Palestinians have been killed in violence, most of whom had carried out attacks or were involved in clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank. But an unarmed woman and two apparent bystanders were also among those killed, and rights groups say Israel often uses excessive force.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war a year ago, fueled in large part by similar unrest in Jerusalem.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, which includes Al-Aqsa and other major religious sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians want the three territories to form their future state. The last serious peace talks collapsed more than a decade ago.
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